Editorial: Are Social VR Platforms Dependent Upon High-End PCVR Doomed?

Today’s Melatopia Festival in Sansar: Less than 45 Avatars Total?

This afternoon, I paid a visit to Sansar to attend the virtual version of the Melatopia South Asian festival. I had a chance to catch up with some old friends and listen to some great music. Sansar is still (to my mind) the most beautiful virtual world, with a vibrant marketplace (44,582 items and counting) providing endless avatar customization options (there was even a mini velociraptor avatar running around amidst the crowd at the concert stage!).

But all the while, I had this nagging little voice in the back of my head, asking: Where is everybody?

To the best of my knowledge (and Wookey may correct me if I am mistaken), the Melatopia event never went above a single instance, and there were never more than 45 avatars total present at the festival (and most of the time that I was there, the figure from the Codex was in the low-to-middle thirties). (UPDATE: There was briefly one time in the afternoon where the festival hit a high if 51 avatars, spawning a second instance.)

Even granted that most people would be watching the show via Twitch, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, I find that to be a shockingly, abysmally low attendance figure, especially compared to the multitudes that would have attended the real-life version of this festival, were it not for the coronavirus pandemic.

Frankly, this blogger has long ago given up trying to chastise Wookey for their puzzling lack of promotion of events on the Sansar platform. There’s only so many times I can write the same editorial: YOU NEED TO PAY FOR PROMOTION. YOU CANNOT EXPECT PEOPLE TO COME TO SANSAR IF YOU DO NOT PROMOTE THE PLATFORM. But my pleas (and those of many other observers) seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Whatever Wookey is doing to promote Sansar, it’s clearly not enough.

But it does raise a bigger question that I have only addressed in passing in earlier editorials discussing and dissecting the demise of the old High Fidelity and the near-death experience and resurrection of Sansar. And that question is: was it a mistake to build social VR platforms that would only run on tethered, high-end virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Valve Index? The collective term I and many other people use when talking about these VR headsets, all of which require a high-end Windows gaming computer with a powerful graphics card to run, is PCVR.

Let’s face facts: both now and for the foreseeable future, the clear VR headset of choice by consumers will be the wireless, standalone Oculus Quest, especially now that Facebook has released the newer, cheaper Oculus Quest 2. And Facebook will stop selling its Oculus Rift S tethered, PCVR headset (the successor to the original Oculus Rift) this coming spring. Business Insider reported:

“We’re going to focus on standalone VR headsets moving forward,” the company said in a blog post on Wednesday. “We’ll no longer pursue PC-only hardware, with sales of Rift S ending in 2021.”

The Rift line of headsets required a powerful gaming PC to power virtual reality experiences. The headset connected to the PC with a set of wires, but the latest Oculus Quest headsets are able to replicate this experience with a single detachable USB cable in addition to operating without a dedicated PC.

As such, Facebook isn’t outright killing its PC-driven virtual reality efforts. It will continue supporting higher-end, PC-powered virtual reality on the Quest line of headsets. 

“We’ve seen significant growth in PC VR via Oculus Link,” the blog post said, “and the Rift Platform will continue to grow while offering high-end PC VR experiences like ‘Lone Echo II’ and ‘Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’ well into the future.”

Two years ago, TechCrunch reported on the disagreements within Facebook over the company’s decision to focus on standalone as opposed to high-end, tethered headsets, saying that Brendan Iribe, the co-founder and former CEO of Oculus, was “leaving Facebook  following some internal shake-ups in the company’s virtual reality arm last week that saw the cancellation of the company’s next generation ‘Rift 2’ PC-powered virtual reality headset, which he had been leading development of”.

If Facebook is leaving the high-end PCVR market, what does that mean for the future of social VR platforms which either do not run on the Quest, like Sansar, or do not run at their full technical capacity, like VRChat? (I wrote about my earlier experiences running VRChat on my Oculus Quest here. Although I’m sure the situation has improved somewhat since then, the fact remains that you still need PCVR to really experience everything that VRChat has to offer.) Are those platforms that run best (or only) on PCVR doomed?

No. So relax. (Yeah, all right, I admit that was a click-bait blogpost title. Sue me.)

While the market for high-end PCVR might mature more slowly than that of wireless VR headsets (and definitely more slowly than most overconfident observers had originally predicted), eventually it will come. Devices may come and go in popularity, but the overall trend is clear: ever more data being pushed to your headset, creating ever more detailed environments. Eventually, that screen door effect that can sometimes make it difficult to read text in a VR headset will vanish. Visual fidelity will only improve from here on in. Consumers and businesses will demand it, and they will buy it. It’s inevitable.

While we do not yet know what future headsets various tech companies have on their drawing boards, we can be assured that other companies will definitely step into the PCVR market while Facebook is stepping out, and up the VR/AR/XR game (many eyes are watching to see what Apple will do, for example). As I like to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. I believe that many people who get their first taste of VR from an Oculus Quest will no doubt graduate to more powerful, tethered devices. (Even Facebook may decide to change their minds at some point in the future, particularly if they should see any potential competitors do well.)

I myself have already placed my order for a Valve Index kit to replace my trusty, four-year-old Oculus Rift, as part of my personal boycott of Facebook/Oculus products and services (more info here). I have heard through the grapevine that they are selling well since Facebook’s decision to force Oculus device users to get Facebook accounts, which is not sitting well with many early VR adopters at all.

And I very much look forward to visiting future virtual festivals in Sansar in my shiny new Valve Index!

Liked it? Then please consider supporting Ryan Schultz on Patreon! Even as little as US$1 a month unlocks exclusive patron benefits. Thank you!

4 thoughts on “Editorial: Are Social VR Platforms Dependent Upon High-End PCVR Doomed?”

  1. I was disappointed too in the lack of attendance at Melatopia today and have always loved and supported Sansar and High Fidelity even as both appeared to me to be grossly mismanaged. Why would I develop content for platforms that the owners don’t seem to support? Facebook is putting their hopes into Horizon and I think it’s going well as I like the style constraints, tools and friendly helpful adult people that you currently find there in beta. Time will tell. Visit my worlds on your next visit. I’m creator SFMike.

  2. Eh, I know where everybody is: in VRChat. Average over 10,000 online and 20,000 peaks. In 2017 both VRChat and Sansar had the same handful online, then VRChat attracted and retained so many people, Sansar nothing, despite partnerships with FNatic, Intel events, and so on. Neos VR never had any advertisement at all, and even if Neos came later, their average now is 4-5 times Sansar. The guys working on Neos have a load of ideas. HiFi was awesome, but it had so many problems. Sansar looks pretty, but VRChat had cute anime avatars when Sansar had those uncanny ones… also they walked funny and there was no interaction. They took almost a year before you could sit down. Still today reviews on Steam says that the VR interface in Sansar is problematic. I liked to visit, to dress my avatar in different ways, I vent to events, to various places, it looked pretty… but remember for people on normal ADSL those rooms/experiences/words took ages to download, unlike VRChat. Now fiber is more common, Sansar has been improved to some extent, but you can understand that these and other issues didn’t help to gain a critical mass and eventually everyone went on VRChat instead, and now someone on Neos. My fav gowns, however, are those featuring cloth physics in Sinespace, lol. Maybe someone one day will put all the good ideas together…

Comments are closed.